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Patrick Mahomes Game-Managed the Chiefs to a Super Bowl Title. That’s a Compliment.

The once-reckless passer has evolved into a steady hand for Kansas City even as the team’s offensive talent has taken a large step back. That patience was the difference against the 49ers.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s very irritating that the Kansas City Chiefs played in this Super Bowl. It’s also very impressive and incredible and enjoyable, but that doesn’t stop it from being irritating. The Chiefs were a painfully flawed team all season—not a team with minor weaknesses or unfortunate injuries, but a team with real problems that should have been exposed by a better playoff contender.

Only that never happened. Patrick Mahomes simply did not allow it.

When you think of Mahomes, you think of greatness—great throws, great moments. And when you think of the imperfect Chiefs team he captained to their third Super Bowl win in just six seasons, you conjure greatness again in your mind. Mahomes must have been spectacular, sensational, his play riddled with the superhuman throws that will one day adorn his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

But that was not the story of this game. This Mahomes Super Bowl MVP award, the third of his still young career, was not about greatness; it was about plainness. It was about how he changed the way he quarterbacked—and in doing so, saved the Chiefs.

Before there was “greatness” or “plainness,” there was recklessness. “Reckless” was how ESPN analyst Jon Gruden described Mahomes when the then–draft prospect sat with him in 2017 for QB Camp, Gruden’s one-on-one film session with all aspiring NFL quarterbacks during draft season.

In his chair across the table from the young passer, Gruden enjoyed Mahomes’s film just as we all did. He rewound a touchdown throw against Louisiana Tech over and over again, calling it the greatest throw he’s ever seen. Then he gave Mahomes the same thing he gave every young quarterback that sat opposite him in the film room: criticism.

The word “RECKLESS” popped onto the screen, bold and underlined. A lowlight reel of Mahomes interceptions ran on the tape: in the red zone, in the end zone, on the run. “I mean, you are reckless … sometimes, with your arm strength, you force the ball into tough areas that you shouldn’t,” Gruden said as the interceptions ran and ran. Then he looked at Mahomes and asked: “Can you learn from these?”

We already know that answer. Mahomes erupted the moment the Chiefs gave him the football and would not stop burning, dazzling, shredding through the league. The Chiefs didn’t win every Super Bowl, nor did Mahomes win every MVP—but man, it sure felt like the beginning of a new dynasty. And more than that—a new age of quarterbacks. Mahomes was a revolutionary.

There wasn’t a thing—not a damn thing—that he couldn’t do. He ripped open the 53-yard-wide football field to hit windows and angles and cross-body magic tricks never before attempted. He got out of the pocket like none other and, when out of the pocket like none other, dithered like none other, so carefree, waiting for the defense to bend, bend, bend, and break against his gravity, his vision, his right arm’s reach. With him at the helm, the Chiefs felt either unstoppable or somehow, perplexingly, stopped—but certainly not for long.

We saw the now-familiar greatness we witnessed on Sunday night. Take the 52-yard pass to Mecole Hardman, a towering throw launched from the left numbers to the right, flying in bold rejection of Tashaun Gipson’s coverage. Travis Kelce threw his hands up, wide open, ignored—Mahomes had bigger plans.

Two drives later, down 10, third down, a scoreless half only two minutes away: Mahomes sashayed out of Nick Bosa’s reach and threw a pass that way while his body headed the other way. First down to Justin Watson—and then some.

Mahomes makes these plays so routinely, they almost become uninteresting. But if this was always in his bag, why did the Chiefs stumble this season? These astonishing plays had always been enough for the Chiefs to overwhelm their opponents—why weren’t they now?

Miscues. Self-inflicted wounds. The exact stuff the 49ers are lamenting on the other side of this loss. No other team dropped more passes this season than the Chiefs did. Their mistakes always came at the worst times—Skyy Moore’s drop in the end zone against Denver. Marquez Valdes-Scantling letting the Eagles game slip through his fingers. The infamous Kadarius Toney offside against Buffalo. Kansas City tripped its way to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII, and it wasn’t going to stop now.

Following the Hardman heave, an Isiah Pacheco run ended with a fumble and a turnover—an empty red zone possession. Following the Watson reception, a Watson drop. The Chiefs’ drive ended with only three points. The worst timing for the simplest errors.

On the season, Mahomes wasn’t as sloppy as his teammates. Sure, he’d throw a pick here and there—but he’s a reckless guy. What do you expect?

While he wasn’t sloppy, the weight of the offensive struggles were too much even for him to overcome. The 2023 season was Mahomes’s worst by EPA per dropback, success rate, and adjusted net yards per attempt—all by a comfortable margin. He was pressured more this season than in any season since 2018, and he was worse when pressured than he had ever been. His explosive play rate has never been lower; his air yards per attempt has never been lower; his time to throw has never been higher. By every metric, this was the hardest season of Mahomes’s career. His worst season in the NFL.

Oh, except for the Super Bowl win. And the Super Bowl MVP. By those metrics, this season was just about as good as his other ones.

It’s not that Mahomes got worse at football, or that Mahomes was solved. It was everything around him that was the issue. Kelce, 34 years old, wasn’t moving as quickly as he used to, producing after the catch like he used to. Besides Rashee Rice, all the swings at receiver missed; the turnover at offensive tackle hurt the team as well. Mahomes could still go supernova, but the Chiefs were rarely able to harness his power. His pocket escapes became meager scrambles instead of downfield shots; his accurate throws, incompletions.

If the Chiefs couldn’t field the same offense they once did, they’d need something else. Andy Reid and the Chiefs’ coaching staff initiated a tactical retreat. The Chiefs started throwing the ball underneath a ton, relying more on yards after the catch. They eschewed the tight downfield windows forced by defenses fearful of Mahomes’s arm and instead targeted open underneath receivers—nobody else threw into an open window more frequently than Mahomes did in 2023.

The result? Drives with far fewer highlights, but with actual points at the end. It took time for Mahomes and Reid to find the gaps in a 49ers defense that put forth a Super Bowl–worthy effort, flowing fast to the football, tackling in space—but eventually, the herald of the quarterbacking revolution settled into his pedestrian role. Mahomes threw it underneath, time and time again, succinctly turning the offense into the hands of an open receiver, trusting some of the same targets that had often betrayed him. In the fourth quarter and overtime, he averaged 4.9 air yards per attempt. He was 16-for-22, with a success rate of 58 percent. He was trailing for the entirety of his three drives, and he threw beyond the sticks exactly six times. Those were the game-winning drives from the NFL’s best game winner: methodical, not maniacal. Somehow, just as merciless.

One play in particular stands out: a third-and-2, down three with 48 seconds left. The 49ers were showing Mahomes an all-out pressure look—the sort of look in seasons past that Mahomes the magician might have looked at with greedy eyes. A one-on-one shot downfield against man coverage with no safety help? This could be the game-winning play.

Instead, what did Mahomes do? He walked up to the line and checked the play to a pressure beater: Running back Jerick McKinnon would bluff as a blocker before releasing fast to the flat, catching a pass behind blocking wide receivers.

This is not an incredible play—but it is. Not for what Mahomes achieved, but for what he denied: that lightning in his blood, the loud and fearless voice of an unparalleled playmaker. Set me free and let me do something rad, Patrick. But the steady hand stayed the aggressive one, and Mahomes checked it down again and again; took what the defense gave him, again and again. Mahomes had fashioned the past few years of the NFL, ringing in a new age of quarterback wizardry. He had owned the past few years of the league, his name stamped on a shiny gold plaque at the bottom of his creation: Mahomes the maker. And today, he became something new by becoming something less.

Many called 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy a game manager in the days leading up to this game—a derogatory phrase they tried to cast at a young passer surrounded by incredible talent. Really, it was Mahomes who was the game manager—Mahomes who sat back and nickel-and-dimed his way downfield with consistent, unspectacular execution, who let an elite defense get their stops and win their game.

Now Mahomes has become the sort of master for whom mastery itself is no longer interesting—an unparalleled artist trying new mediums just to remember what competitiveness and challenge feel like. What others only dream of achieving—throws of the rarest form, physical achievements beyond imagining—Mahomes has on a shelf in his office, tucked in a corner of his closet. “What’s that?” others wonder, having never seen one before, held one before. “Oh, this old thing?” Mahomes replies. To the old magic he has introduced a newfangled excellence—humbler, quieter. Most quarterbacks don’t have Mahomes’s talent; now, most quarterbacks don’t have his versatility, either.

“I mean, you are reckless.”

Gruden’s words have been echoing in my head all week, so before the game, I went to find some answers. I spoke to Mahomes’s teammates and coaches about his growth over the past seven years—how he evolved into a willing and dispassionate distributor. The answer came from Joe Bleymaier, the Chiefs passing game coordinator. He has been in Kansas City since 2016, just one year longer than Mahomes has, and has seen his growth firsthand.

But Bleymaier’s answer wasn’t about how Mahomes became a new quarterback—rather, it was about understanding the quarterback he once was.

“It was the competitor in him,” Bleymaier says of Mahomes’s play at Texas Tech. “At Tech, it was a lot of ‘Hey, you gotta do it on your own’ or ‘We’re gonna need you to scramble on third-and-long and find somebody.’ ... And then when he first got here, with a lot of the skill players that we had, he was trying to utilize all the guys that we had, and a lot of their skill sets were going downfield. So he was just always looking for the shots downfield. And then as our team has evolved … in what it takes to win the games, he was just very seamlessly working to whatever the defense gave us the best chance.”

In Bleymaier’s understanding, there hasn’t been an evolution of Mahomes, but rather a new expression. Mahomes the competitor is the constant, and Mahomes the quarterback forms around him. When he needed to don the superhero cape for Texas Tech to have a chance, he did—and if that made him reckless, so be it. When the Chiefs had a ton of offensive playmakers, Mahomes ran around and gave those guys a chance. And when the Chiefs need to win close defensive games by handing the ball off, checking it down, and avoiding mistakes, Mahomes can do that, too.

I’m not sure I buy Bleymaier’s explanation—I can still hear the cries for freedom from Mahomes’s reckless side, see those few plays on which he is unleashed. But I do know that Mahomes is not reckless. That he has learned, not just from the mistakes of his youth, but from his coaches and teammates and circumstances. I know that on Sunday night, down the homestretch, with the game on the line, he was pretty much perfect.

This was supposed to be the bad Mahomes year, and it ended the same way the good ones did: with the Chiefs on top. This was their worst, and it was better than everyone else’s best.